INDIANAPOLIS -- Pausing to take in his surroundings Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Al Unser Jr. looked like a lost puppy who had found his way home.
"Doesn't look like it's changed very much here,' the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner said in an interview room located beneath the track's pit-road grandstands. "It's great to be back."
Unser will compete in his first race at Indy since 1994 today when the International Race of Champions makes its debut at the storied speedway. The 12-driver field also includes Jimmy Vasser, another open-wheel racing star who was effectively banished when Indy racing split into two series in 1996.
Unser's return is particularly significant, given his family's history here. Between 1968 and 1994, the Unser clan accounted for nine Indy 500 victories. Al Sr. won four times, his brother, Bobby three times, and Al Unser joined them in 1992 and 1994.
"Any time you get to run at Indianapolis, it's a dream come true," Al Jr. said. "I just wish it could have been in an open-wheel, single-seat champ car."
IROC drivers race identically prepared Pontiac Firebird stock cars. The field also includes NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton; open-wheel drivers Arie Luyendyk and Tony Stewart; road racer Tommy Kendall; and two-time defending Busch Series champ Randy LaJoie.
Unser hasn't raced at Indy since 1994 because he failed to qualify for the '95 500. Beginning in 1996, the Indy 500 field was limited to participants in IMS president Tony George's Indy Racing League.
A bitter rivalry between the IRL and the established CART has kept many of the top open-wheel drivers from competing in the past three Indy 500s. Open-wheel racing has been hurt by the split, since IRL attendance has been poor and TV ratings for both series have paled next to NASCAR's.
"My feeling is there's always hope (for a resolution)," Unser said. "I'm not going to give up on that matter. The (age limit) is 60 years old, and I'm a long way from that."
Added Vasser, "I hope they can work things out, but it seems the division gets deeper and wider. I don't see anything happening in the near future."
Unser did make an appearance at IMS in May, when cousins Robby and Johnny Unser were qualifying for the 500.
"I walked out onto pit road, and I didn't know what to expect because these are IRL fans now," Unser said. "I didn't know if I would get booed or they would accept me, and I was overwhelmed. The crowd showed me a lot of heart."
Unser is the winningest driver in the 22-year history of the IROC with 11 victories, although Mark Martin has won one more championship (three). Though an open-wheel racer at heart, Unser had a solid showing in the 1995 Daytona 500, and he won't rule out competing in future NASCAR events.
"I keep telling my wife, Shelly, that I'm not a stock car driver, and she keeps saying she wants me in a stock car," Unser said. "She thinks I could be good in the Brickyard 400. Really, I just want to concentrate on the open-wheelers. But you never know. If the war continues between these two, you might find me in a stock car."
The IROC race will be taped by ABC and will shown after Saturday's live telecast of the Brickyard 400.
TOUGH SPLIT: NASCAR Rookie of the Year candidate Jerry Nadeau and former boss Bill Elliott probably won't be dining together any time soon.
Nadeau is bitter about his firing by Elliott two races ago after the Jiffy Lube 300 at New Hampshire. He has since moved to the No. 9 Ford owned by Harry Melling as the replacement for Lake Speed, who resigned because of injuries.
"I don't know how much they expected," Nadeau said, referring to Elliott and other team members. "I mean, I thought I would have gotten maybe a little more support where I could talk to somebody and somebody would tell me what I need to do or what I'm doing wrong. They basically gave me the keys to the car, and it was, `go ahead with it."'
Elliott owns the No. 13 FirstPlus Financial Ford, along with Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. Wally Dallenbach was hired to drive the car before last week's race at Pocono.
Nadeau is second in the Rookie of the Year standings, behind Kenny Irwin. His best finish is a 21st, and although he did win the outside pole position at Sears Point, he crashed on the first lap. He was fired after wrecking two cars at New Hampshire.
Nadeau said the fact the team is based in Dawsonville, Ga., rather than in North Carolina with most of the other Winston Cup teams hurts its ability to attract quality crew members.
"I'll be honest, it's hard to get guys to move to Dawsonville, Ga.," Nadeau said. "I mean, there's really nothing there, and, if something does go wrong, where are they going to go?"
APPEAL LOST: The National Stock Car Commission Thursday upheld Busch Series driver Jeff Purvis' four-race suspension and amended the fines against Purvis and his crew chief, Johnny Allen, following last Saturday night's race at South Boston, Va. Purvis had his fine raised from $5,000 to $10,000, while Allen's $1,500 fine was reduced to $250.
Purvis and driver Mark Green and members of their crews were involved in a nasty fight following a wreck. Other participants did not appeal their penalties to the commission. Jason Taylor, one of Purvis' crew members, was fined $2,500 and suspended for the rest of the year. Kenneth Campbell, Green's crew chief, was fined $2,500.
The National Stock Car Commission is headed by newly appointed Charles D. Strang.
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